Alex Mason Interview
First thing I want to say is Alex Mason is a cool dude and we had a lot of fun with this interview, that being said my greatest regret is that there is no way to transcribe how contagious his laugh is. Setlist: So Alex I’m eager to ask, what got you started with music?
Alex Mason: My mom was a piano teacher and has been my whole life. When I was a kid I was subjected to all sorts of piano lessons with other kids so she could baby sit us while she was teaching. It’s funny because the music room she used to teach in, in the basement was literally highlighter yellow with all these crazy birds and animals that were representative of notes on the scale. So I was just kind of embroiled in it from a young age. And then as I got older I decided I don’t really want to learn sheet music (bellowing laugh erupts from Alex like a volcano).
Then I was probably 13 and I got this idea that I need to play guitar. Originally I wanted to play the drums and my dad was like “Fuck No!” (Phones shake from Masons laugh) I told him it’ll be cool I'll just play in the garage, to which he says "no the garage is where my tools are, you’re not going in there." So guitar was kind of my second option which is kind of funny.
So, I asked for one for Christmas and my parents told me that if I really wanted one bad enough I was going to have to save up and buy one myself. So I saved up my paper boy money and I’m not even sure how long it took me, because it wasn’t that much money but when your thirteen a hundred dollars is so unobtainable, how am I going to get that! But I have this cousin Rob, he’s like seven years older than me and he sold me my first guitar with a little P.V amp and it was just awful.
But the first time I ever played guitar it was a buddy of mine’s from school. I broke a string, and I thought I broke the entire guitar, because I didn’t know anything about it. I was trying to play Green Day in my basement and when I broke the string, I cried and was like “dude I’ll pay for it, I am so sorry”
Setlist: Who among us hasn’t broken a loved one’s strings trying to play Green Day? How old were you at the time?
Alex: Yeah exactly, but I was about 13 because I got the guitar on my birthday and that was kind of the puppy love beginning of playing the guitar.
I was trying to teach myself with tabs and then I got a teacher for a little while. He actually taught bass… so he couldn’t teach me that much. Then I started doing my own thing, but I didn’t really get into it until I started writing songs. I had this book that I started filling up with lyrics and really awful, awful songs. (A shelving unit collapses in my apartment from the vibrations of Mason’s laughter)
It was just something that I felt like I could do forever and ever, so I would lock myself in my room and just write all the time. That began around when I was 16.
Setlist: At 16 what were you in to, what sort of things would you write about?
Alex: Oh my God, awful. Awful. As you could probably tell I was obsessed with The Ramones, Green Day and punk stuff at the time. All this heavy music because they were so angsty. I mean I’m still angsty but less so. I wrote a lot of pseudo political songs haha, but I’m really into reading and would try to write about characters from books I had read. So yeah that; the weird political stuff, and I guess just melancholy states of being.
Setlist: Dude, there’s your next album Melancholy States of Being haha.
Alex: You know what it’s really all the same stuff, now that I think about it hahaha
Setlist: Well we can definitely hear that angst in your song Family Tree. Defiantly let it all out there.
Alex: You know, it‘s funny when I was younger I really wanted to be a high singer…I wanted to sing like Freddy Mercury. These guys who had crazy range, but it wasn’t until I was around 18 and figured out I’m a baritone singer, like I don’t have a tenor voice. But I tried, and I would nearly pass out singing, trying to hit these high notes.
But then I got really into Johnny cash.
Setlist: Yeah, listening to Jasper today I could hear a little Johnny Cash influence in the guitar riff.
Alex: He’s been a hero of mine for so long, my dad saw him, in person. Ages ago maybe mid 80’s he made a stop in London, Ontario and he took my Grandma to go see him. So he has always been this deity figure in my life. He’s like monolithic. The first time I heard American recordings, man comes around that album with Hurt and everything on it, and it blew my mind.
Setlist: Your talking about the one that came out in 2005 or something, it was towards the end of his life right?
Alex: Yeah, it’s amazing. It’s like a total compendium of everything. He does covers, originals, and the production is amazing. It’s just such a perfect album from start to finish.
Setlist: I remember when I was younger going through my dad’s stuff… probably shouldn’t have been haha. I found a lot more than I was hoping to… but I came across all these bandanas that were from every Willie Nelson show he had been to.
Alex: Whaaaaaat? That is so cool. Yeah I have a lot of stuff that’s my dad’s. For my 19th birthday he told me he had an old record player and all his albums in the attic. He said if I go in there and dig it out I could have it. I was worried because I didn’t know what kind of sate it would be in, but I still have it and it’s in amazing shape. I got the Red and Blue album by the Beatles from there too.
Setlist: So I know your mom was a music teacher, but was your dad an enthusiast or did he play as well?
Alex: That’s the super bizarre thing, in my household my mom was always the creative free spirit and my dad was the down to brass tax, science guy. Ya know like“No hippy fairy bullshit.” But as time has gone by I realized it wasn’t as cut and dry as that. So even though my mom brought me up through music she and I were completely different musically. She can’t play anything by ear it has to be written down. But I found out later that my dad used to play clarinet randomly. It was all by ear so he would improvise for hours. It’s super bizarre because to me he was just never that guy.
Then I found out he was into Benny Goodman and all this Dixie Land jazz stuff and it all made sense. I play best by ear and don’t like to use sheet music. It’s like math; it just doesn’t click with me.
Setlist: How do you think the different influences from your parents come into play now with your work?
Alex: That’s interesting because I’ve always been into instrumental arrangements, which I haven’t done yet, but is a direction I’ve always seen myself going into. My mom is like completely classical. She used to play Claude Debussy’s The Moonlight, for like an hour every day. So that stuff is in there for me, maybe in a subconscious way. I think a lot of my frontal brain immediate stuff, comes from my dad playing the radio. He was just a classic 70’s 80’s guy. He loved rock n’ roll and Robert Plant, all the big rock guys. Growing up whenever they would have BBC sessions on he would always bring me into the living room to watch James Taylor or whoever was on. So a lot of that seeped in without knowing who they were. I wouldn’t know James Taylor was a living legend I just thought “here’s some guy playing really good acoustic guitar”
Setlist: I totally relate to that, when I was a kid I can remember driving around with my Dad and he played James Taylor a lot but he also played Van Morrison. One day he was playing Van Morrison and I was thinking wow he has an amazing voice. I actually asked my Dad if Van Morrison was famous. Haha. He was like yeah... he's famous.
Alex: Isn’t that funny too, ‘cause when you’re growing up you just listens to music so uninhibitedly that you just assume that these people are regular people that walk around. You know? You just think that that’s their job and they just play the music I hear on the radio.
Setlist: Yeah, exactly.
Alex: Where I’m going its strange because I always thought the stuff I’m doing is very antithetical to the stuff they listened to or enjoyed because my dad loves top 40 and all that kind of stuff ya know? And to me music was my thing and I was very obsessed with it. I was really in to heavy music like punk and hard core and bands like Refused and stuff like that. I felt like this was very personal and made for me and nobody else because I’m a middle child if you have noticed that already. Haha. So that was my thing. When I first started writing music I didn’t want it to have anything to do with where I’m from or who I am.
Setlist: Haha. And now your album is titled Jasper.
Alex: Exactly, absolutely. It’s so bazaar how it just comes full circle. And you realize the stuff that you are is the stuff you write about.
Setlist: Right! Hey, let me ask you this. With your album this may seem like a random question but like is that a personal photo you used for your cover or just something you found and really liked?
Alex: Well actually that is a crazy story. With the song Jasper, when I wrote it, it was completely I don’t want to say random but I was going through some heavy stuff when I moved to Toronto. I had moved from London and I had this really big friend group and I knew my place in my little world then I moved to Toronto because that’s where you kind of have to migrate to if you want to swim with the big fish I guess.
Setlist: Hey, just to clarify, you’re talking about London, Ontario right?
Alex: Yeah yeah.
Setlist: Just making sure because I have drove through London before but half the readership may not know that.
Alex: Well it’s really not hard because there are so many cities and towns that are named the same as European cities because they are colonies, right so any ways the song just sort of came out one day and the house I was staying at was really bazaar. It was my uncle's friend's place whose Dad had died there. It was just a really old creepy house, I think it was haunted to be totally honest and I ended up writing that song in what felt to be out of nowhere and Jasper seemed like a place to go to, to be renewed if that makes sense. So anyways I didn’t really like it at first but I just went with and showed Jessie, my girlfriend and she loved it and wanted me to play it. So going back to whole thing with the photo, I decided I was going to make the EP around the whole song because it just felt present and like the right thing to do at the right time and I was like skimming through old photos and my grandfather who passed away the year before use to go hiking in New Hampshire and he wrote a memoir because his grandfather, my great, great grandfather was a renowned professor at UBC in British Columbia, Canada so the cover of the memoir is that photo that you see as the online cover. That photo was taken in 1939.
Alex: That’s like a legit photo from when he went hiking. So I messaged my aunt to see if I could use it as my EP cover and then a couple of weeks later out of curiosity I was wondering where the photo was taken because I just figured it was New Hampshire. When I looked at the back of the memoir it says 1939 facing Mount Colman. Then I found out Mount Colman is in Jasper!
Setlist: No Way! Wow, that is crazy!
Alex: My Grandfather was that same age in that photo as I was when I wrote that song.
Setlist: Wow, Dude that is an amazing story!
Alex: Isn’t that so, so weird?! And then on top of that I was going to do a little across Canada tour so I like booked it with this Viro company because they do this thing where you play on the train and they pay your way and my first stop was in Jasper. So, I ended up play some shows there and it ended up being the most serendipitous, bazaar experience of my life! The crazy thing about the mountain too was that he was actually the first one to climb it because the guy that it was named after, Arthur Colman was also a professor at UBC. He was a geologist but he never got to climb it because he was too busy with his work at the University.
Setlist: So was your Grandfather the first to summit it?
Alex: Yeah absolutely, he actually left Arthur Colman’s Pick Ax at the top of it.
Setlist: Wow that is insane dude! How cool!
Alex: Sometime when I read that I feel like man, I should really try to accomplish something with my life because that is way cooler. Haha.
Setlist: Haha, no way man it sounds like you are on the right track and about to summit some real mountains yourself.
Alex: HA! Thanks
Setlist: So talk to me more about this song, we love Jasper and feel like there is some real symbolism there with the sparrows and cherub and you were talking about going over it with your girlfriend at the time and so for a while I wasn’t sure if it was about a girl or what is it about to you?
Alex: So at the time when I wrote it, as I was saying before, I’m always ensconced in literature and totally in to books and stuff. That’s what I was getting my degree in, and saw it as a way to help better me while getting lyric potential.
The first line is a take off the Robert Frost poem The Road Less Traveled. At the time of writing it I was just really like, deep inside myself, really thinking about things that had happened like my uncle passing away and my grandfather passing away. I was getting to the point where I was like “I don’t know if I can deal with these things and like how do I keep going. You know what I mean? Because I felt like the path was getting narrower and darker as you go on. You feel so optimistic about things and the world starts to open up ad as you get older things seem to close in on you, and that’s the way I was feeling and that sort of prompted this feeling I needed to go somewhere, be somewhere and Bruce Springsteen said that. Our first song is about a desire to do something, like you want you go somewhere you want to be with someone and that’s where the chorus came from. Like I want to be wrapped in nature, I want to feel new again.
With Jasper it’s interesting because it’s like a place of lowlands of the plans and where the mountains meet, which are like 2 opposites colliding and that’s where I wanted to be at the time. It’s funny because I’ve never been there and I didn’t know why. Now… looking back it seems like it’s a weird premonition for a song. But that’s sometimes how you right songs, you feel like you’re telling it to yourself; so, a lot of the symbolisms came from there.
So, like the song is a physical and emotional journey; you’re physically going somewhere but through going somewhere physically you’re also emotionally traveling like your growing and experiencing as a person. It was the first verse leading into the chorus was all of these things happening to me and I had this heavy burden, I had also gone through this rough break the year before, so I was shaping all of what happened to me into as much of a journey as possible.
Setlist: It was one of my favorite lines in your song, and I’m probably going to botch it but, when you were talking about “I saw the sparrows… cherubs were sent by you”. Was that, for you, your Uncle or your Grandpa seeing a sign from them after they had passed?
Alex: I was trying to use the image the cherub, and I’ve always found the image weird to me because it’s an angel but like a baby HAHA, but it symbolizes that love can be challenged. At that time, I felt like I was chasing down any good options I had left in a meaningful relationship. Cause I “used up all the arrows shooting down the sparrows that I THOUGHT were sent by you…” So, theirs the feeling that I had people who were like “come in, let me take you away from this hardship” and I had fended them off because I didn’t feel like I had anywhere to go.
Setlist: Wow, just hearing you explain that to me has made me have so much more love for your song. And to be honest with you, sometimes even in bad songs you hear good lyrics. You’re like wow I can’t believe that artist said that. For instance, my girlfriend will be blaring Taylor Swift, right, and I’ll be like that was actually like an impressive lyric. But, it’s different when, like what you wrote. So, when I heard “cherubs” I thought you know lots of people could figure out how to use cherubs. But then when I was listening to the song I was like wow, not only was this a great word to use here but one; he knows what it is and two; it really has a lot of impact. I was just really impressed by that and now hearing you say it, it’s really enlightening.
Alex: Thanks man. I feel like especially in this genre the wheel arcs of folk and country there’s so many songs. And now it’s strange, there’s been this revamp of classic country and a lot of the motifs that go along with that. But I find it puzzling because a lot of the lyrics don’t really change. I really like Margo Price, she’s kind of reinstating how the country lyric is written, and a lot of these other guys don’t make much of an effort to update. She realizes she’s a country singer in 2017 and like there are only so many times you can say “my baby left me”. So, to me it’s always really important to use, if not a new, at least a different vocabulary. Nothing is worse to mean than when a lyric falls flat; you hear someone say it and your waiting for that punch and it’s not there, and you’re like wait…. that’s such an opportunity lost.
Setlist: Couldn’t agree with you more. So, have you been able to travel to Jasper since the song?
Alex: Yeah, so when I was there on tour. When I got there, it was so overwhelming because I was here at this place I had written about but knew nothing about. I got into the town and it was amazing, it felt like this little place that had been dropped out of the sky between mountains. I played at the Jasper Legion that night and the people where so friendly and kind and playing the song there was bizarre. It was cool because the people that had seen me play on the train had even come to the show. I ended up going to Banff the next day and we went through these ice fields that were amazing to see.
Setlist: Is this British Columbia?
Alex: Alberta, which adjacent to it. In Banff, I ended up playing at this Hostel called The Storm Cellar and they were all just so kind there too. And then I had to go back to Jasper for my train and played at another Hostel and I ran into this friend from my hometown who was working there, just randomly by chance! So, then we all pooled our money together and got a 24 pack and just drank, talked and got a little drunk and decided to start a bonfire outside in the middle of November in Alberta, so it’s like cold, but we eventually got it going. Then someone brought out a guitar and was like “does anyone know how to play” and then I played the song there and it was so crazy!
Setlist: Sounds like an awesome time man.
Alex: Yeah absolutely, and I always think of that; how nice the people are and how amazing the experience was. I’m so blessed I was able to do that.
Setlist: That’s crazy about the amount of coincidences, all of your serendipitous moments, you have had. For me, like with doing Setlist and other things in my life I feel those moments are signs that you are on the right path of what you are doing. I think that’s great you’ve had a lot of those moments throughout your journey, especially with your music its seems like your right on path of what you need to be doing.
Alex: I hope so. It’s crazy because sometimes you goon days of such extreme doubt and strain and you get so close to the edge of being like I just don’t want to do it anymore. And then something will happen and you’re like oh!
Setlist: Exactly! So, where do you think you’re going to go from here? What do you feel like is next for you?
Alex: I’m working on a new E.P right now. It’s definitely on the more weirdo experimental side for sure. I’m trying to do a concept E.P of five or six songs that are tightly related, theme wise. It’ll be more acoustic based with stranger elements going on, I mean not like hip hop samples but cool stuff chopped up and put in there. Plus I’m also working on putting together my first full length album. I’m going through a pretty lengthy vetting process for the songs and the lyrics because when I release it I want it to be something I’m really proud of. So far it’s sounding like Jasper E.P but in album form. And with the Jasper E.P it’s opened a lot of doors and done what I set out for it to do. It’s demonstrated what I’m trying to accomplish.
Setlist: What do you feel like the biggest difference is between your first and second E.P?
Alex: The first one I went to the studio super prepared, I knew exactly how everything was going to be done. With Jasper I knew almost nothing ahead of time. It made for a really difficult recording process but out of that struggle came a better record I believe. I think establishing your sound and creating your trademark is so important as an artist and with jasper I feel much closer to the sound I’m after.
Setlist: What is it that you’re trying to accomplish? And why do you feel like it’s important?
Alex: It’s tough because I’ve been weighing that question for a long time. What am I trying to contribute to the musical conversation? So far, I’ve got the feeling that I really want to showcase all the things I really love about music. Especially alternative music. It has a boldness and honesty with the lyrics while still having a harder edge. It can be a bit loud, you don’t have to round out the edges with that kind of music, it doesn’t have to be perfect. I think it’s important because when I was in school I came to this fork in the road in my life. I was good at this school thing so I could continue to do this and become a professor or something… but I had this really profound epiphany when I was in my last year. I had become really jaded with school assignments and realized that all these friends I had in the master and PhD programs would go to this workspace called The Bunker and write 15,000 word papers that nobody would read besides people in academia. Of course there’s nothing wrong with that but I realized for me I don’t want to be in a “Bunker” for my whole life.
So for me music has been the most accessible and tangible way to connect with people. When your reading or writing one of those papers you could be doing an analysis of one line of prose from Dante, and that may be rewarding for you but I mean if you play the right song at the right time for some guy who hates his job and he feels unfulfilled in his life, but he gets to let go for three minutes. That’s a real world contribution, your actually changing something for someone in real time. That’s when I realized this is what I have to do.
A big thanks to Alex for taking the time for this interview, we're excited to see where he goes from here.